World Literature and Global Theory: Comparative Literature for the New Millennium
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World Literature and Global Theory:
Comparative Literature for the New Millennium

It has become a sign of living in the present to note the increasing globalization of the world—the transnationalism of the currents along which capital, goods, labor, persons, and information flow; the interconnectedness of diverse cultures; the networks and internets that, despite their inequitable distribution, have nonetheless become the icons of rapidly changing, intricately interlinked societies. Global consciousness, speaking everywhere with the inexorable voice of the new, also appears to tow traditional academic bodies of knowledge within its orbit: “adapt,” it seems to say, “or die.” This Darwinian choice between adaptation and death has of course already been made, its iteration in the present tense serving to obscure the creeping changes long wrought on our disciplinary institutions, critical theories, and pedagogical practices by an ever more heterogeneous global sensibility. Globalization, understood as a process of cross-cultural interaction, exchange, and transformation, is certainly as old as any currently recognized academic field and in most cases far older, whether we take as its starting point the post-modern, post-colonial acceleration of spatio-temporal connection, the nineteenth-century capitalist expansion of imperial nations, the fifteenth-century formation of a world system dominated by mercantilist states and divided into core and peripheral zones, or even the trade routes of the ancient and medieval world.1 But contemporary globalization is of course far more than the mirror image of its various historical antecedents, bearing at its disposal unprecedented economic and cultural forces of connection (if one is utopian) or homogenization (if one is dystopian).2 [End Page 15]

Fredric Jameson suggests that the distinction may depend on whether one focuses on the cultural or economic axes of globalization. As cultural process, globalization names the explosion of a plurality of mutually intersecting, individually syncretic, local differences; the emergence of new, hitherto suppressed identities; and the expansion of a world-wide media and technology culture with the promise of popular democratization. As economic process, globalization works on the principle not of ever increasing difference but forced identity: the assimilation or integration of markets, of labor, of nations. Jameson goes on to note that we are of course free to switch things around, and to lament globalization’s standardization of culture (McDonald’s in Beijing) while celebrating the productive diversities and differences of the new global free market (Jameson 1998, 56–8). Globalization, by no means reducible to the universal reign of commodification, is for many of its scholars an inherently mixed phenomenon, a process encompassing both sameness and difference, compression and expansion, convergence and divergence, nationalism and internationalism, universalism and particularism (Robertson; Lowe 1997). Consistently contradictory, deeply double, the “global” has less to do with the concept of a hegemonic, homogenous universal than with what Stuart Hall terms the practice of relational thinking. Attune to the various ways in which “the global/ local reciprocally re-organise and re-shape one another,” relational thinking proceeds under the sign of difference and plurality and through the method of articulation (Hall 1996, 247; 1991a, b).

Although globalization theorists differ in the critical discourses they bring to their topic, the historical periodization they assign to it, and the political and cultural effects they diagnose from it, they nonetheless share, in Anthony D. King’s words,

at least two perspectives: the rejection of the nationally-constituted society as the appropriate object of discourse, or unit of social and cultural analysis, and to varying degrees, a commitment to conceptualising ‘the world as a whole.’


If globalization demands the perpetual realization that the national is not the only paradigm, what does it then mean to conceive of globalized models for literary study, globalized futures for literary disciplines? Beyond the simple acquisition of the globe by certain well-established and often nationalized disciplinary methods (a process resembling critical McDonaldization), we must instead envision the making of new [End Page 16] method, the learning and teaching of a different, double, dialectical way of thinking for which globalization’s own dualities provide the model.3

No contemporary institution, academic or otherwise, can choose to ignore globalization. Fareed Zakaria intuits the problem and identifies a form suitable to its expression...